Tag Archives: fake Irish etymology

Cassidese Glossary – Blowen

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Blowen is an old term in criminal jargon, defined as ‘a showy or flaunting prostitute, a thief’s paramour’. It was first recorded in the 16th century. There are various suggestions as to its origin, none of them very convincing. Hotten (1865) suggests that ‘blowen may mean one whose reputation has been blown upon, or damaged’. Charles Mackay, the man who tried to do something very similar to Cassidy with Scottish Gaelic, suggested that it comes from blaodh eun, which he says means birdsong, because of the siren-like effect of such women on men. Hmm.

Cassidy’s claim sounds reasonably plausible (certainly compared to Mackay’s, anyway). He claims that it comes from the Irish bláthán. According to Cassidy, this is defined as:

Bláthán (pron. bláhán), n., a small flower, little blossom; fig. a pretty girl, term of endearment for a young girl.

Cassidy cites Dinneen (misspelled as Dineen) and Dwelly for this definition. Ó Dónaill, the most authoritative modern dictionary of the Irish language (not cited by Cassidy), gives the word bláthán with only one definition, grilse, a term that means small fry, young fish. It doesn’t mention blossoms (though the word is almost certainly linked to the Irish bláth meaning flower or blossom) or young girls.

Dinneen gives the following definition: ‘a small flower, a bud; also a fry, as salmon fry; a kind of rock-fish’.  Again, nothing about endearment or terms for young girls.

Dwelly’s Dictionary is of no relevance here, because it’s a dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, not of Irish. However, since Cassidy cited it, we should reproduce what it says. The cognate of bláthán given in this dictionary does not support any meaning to do with girls or terms of endearment. It simply says: ‘blàithean -ein, sm dim. of blàth. Little blossom.’

In other words, bláthán can mean a bud or a blossom, or a small fish. Cassidy’s definition is imaginary. Of course, some people might be thinking that a term for a little blossom could easily be used figuratively, as Cassidy said. However, if this were the case, it would probably have been recorded.

There is also another good reason to regard this claim with suspicion. In Irish, there are three commonly-used diminutives. One is the general –ín found in words like cailín (colleen) or poitín (poteen). The other two were traditionally known as the sister diminutive (-óg) and the brother diminutive (-án). Generally speaking, animate words with –óg are female. A giobóg is an untidy or lazy woman, a sraoilleog is a slattern. Many of these are pejorative terms. Words with –án are either referring to men or unspecified. (Like cancrán, a grumpy person.) However, while is conceivable that bláithín would be used as a pet term for a girl (Bláithín is used as a girl’s name, after all), it is not at all likely that bláthán would be used that way in reference to girls or women because it’s basically a masculine diminutive, even if the dictionary meanings were appropriate – which they aren’t.

Hoodoo

I have noticed that many of the early posts on this blog get relatively little traffic, so I have decided to start republishing some of them.

According to Cassidy, the term ‘hoodoo’ derives from an Irish expression uath dubh, which (according to Cassidy) means:

Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing. Uath, n., a form or shape; a spectre or phantom; dread, terror, hate. Old Gaelic name for the hawthorn. Dubh, (pron. doo, duv), adj., dark; black; malevolent, evil; wicked; angry, sinister; gloomy, melancholy; strange, unknown.

 (O’Donaill, 457, 1294; Dineen, 374, 1287; De Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary, 755; Dwelly, 988)

Looking at this list of dictionaries, you would think that Cassidy had actually found the phrase uath dubh recorded in one or all of them. In fact, no dictionary records the phrase uath dubh. Uath is in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, where it is described as a literary term meaning fear or horror (for literary, read ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not in current use.’) It is also given in Dinneen, where it is defined as:

A form or shape, a spectre or phantom; dread, terror; hate.

It is not found in De Bhaldraithe, which is an English-Irish dictionary and seems to have been thrown in to make the list of references look more impressive. Dwelly is a Scottish Gaelic dictionary and therefore quite irrelevant in this context.

There is also another old-fashioned term uath, an entirely different word, which means the whitethorn bush.

So, the situation is this. The first part of Cassidy’s definition above (Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing) was invented by Cassidy. And not only is the supposed Irish source of ‘hoodoo’ not in any dictionary or any other source, Cassidy mixes up two quite separate words and throws in the adjective spiky for good measure because a whitethorn bush is spiky!

If you are sympathetic to Cassidy, you are probably saying, if uath exists and dubh exists, couldn’t Cassidy be right? Couldn’t the two words have been combined by Irish speakers to mean an evil apparition?

I don’t think so. Even leaving aside the fact that uath was an old-fashioned word by the 19th century, where is the evidence that the Irish ever believed in a supernatural being called the uath dubh? Why hasn’t this word survived in any books or poems or stories or songs? Why didn’t the collectors of Irish folklore find any trace of it? Why isn’t it as well known as the banshee (bean sí) or the pooka (púca)?

Suppose someone decided that in English there was a supernatural being called a spritegoblin. Is it enough for them to prove that the words sprite and goblin both exist in English? Wouldn’t you expect them to find specific references to the compound word spritegoblin?

Unfortunately, Cassidy’s book is haunted by hundreds of spritegoblins, made-up phrases which don’t exist outside of Cassidyworld.  Cassidy, on his own admission, spoke no Irish at all. He claimed that he ‘checked’ his words with a native speaker of Irish. Exactly how he did this is unclear. I have visions of him walking into an Irish bar, asking if anyone was an Irish speaker, showing the putative native speaker his list of words and asking them if they were OK, and then when they nodded sagely and said ‘Oh yes!’ he would buy them a pint as a reward. Maybe this is a bit cynical on my part, but  I can’t imagine that he did the thing that anyone would do if they seriously wanted to prove their case. I’m sure he never gave a list of words and phrases like uath dubh and sách úr to native speakers in a blind test to see whether they really are recognisable as what Cassidy thought they meant. Cassidy obviously preferred to include all kinds of rubbish and not check his facts at all because with even a slight scrutiny of his materials he would have ended up with a pamphlet rather than a book.

The origin of hoodoo is a mystery but there is absolutely no evidence linking it to the Irish language or to the island of Ireland. Unless Cassidy’s supporters can find even one reference to the uath dubh somewhere in the vast corpus of Irish literature, we can reasonably assume that it doesn’t exist and that it is yet another figment of Daniel Cassidy’s imagination.